911 Misdials: A Mini-Case Study

Ambulance driving Photo (detail): Jonnica Hill © Unsplash

911 dispatchers are receiving an overwhelming number of accidental calls, leading to some pretty big issues. Watch this infographic for a breakdown of the butt dial problem troubling San Francisco’s emergency call centers.

Kate Sammer and Savannah Beck

One day, my roommate came home from work, set her things down, and said, “You won’t believe what happened today.” In order to dial out from the office, she tells me, you first have to enter a “9.” In the process, an unsuspecting employee inadvertently dialed 911. Can you believe that? If this has ever happened to you, don’t despair! As it turns out, people accidentally dial 911 all the time. The problem has gotten so out of hand that Google conducted a study on 911 calls to San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) in 2015.

The two most common code calls from the past couple of years were “miscellaneous” and “unknown” – classifications that likely included a literal butt-load of dials.

– John Metcalfe, Bloomberg CityLab

Between 2011 and 2014, the DEM saw an unprecedented 28% increase in call volume. In hopes of uncovering the reasons behind this massive surge, Google began analyzing trends in DEM call data. The DEM uses a computer-aided dispatch system that categorizes incoming calls to the center using over 150 codes. These codes correspond to the activity reported, ranging from everyday nuisances to critical dangers – noise complaints, auto boosts, burglary, and so on. The Google team ran an analysis of the data, and their findings were remarkable: 34% of calls to the center in 2014 were categorized as unknown or miscellaneous. In other words, 34% of the calls were likely accidental.

You’re thinking, “Hold up. How could over a third of all 911 calls be misdials?” At the time of the study, 90% of Americans owned a cell phone while 64% of Americans owned smartphones (these numbers have risen since). With the advent of the mobile phone, came a world of new possibilities, including the butt dial. Another investigation into 911 calls found that 70% of calls in New York City are placed by cell phones, and at least half of these calls are butt dials. The rates vary, but this is a nationwide problem. Actually, the problem isn’t even limited to the US – accidental calls to emergency call centers are a documented issue in countries like Canada and Australia, too.

So what’s the big deal? Well, when a dispatcher at one of these centers receives an accidental call, they have to call the number back to confirm it wasn’t an actual emergency and may even send law enforcement. This accounts for a large portion of operators’ time, and as we all know, time is money. In an interview with Bloomberg CityLab, Robert Smuts, emergency-management deputy director in San Francisco, speaks on the severity of the issue: “If it were possible to get rid of all accidental dials, we would easily save north of $2 million per year in San Francisco alone.” So in conclusion: our smartphone addiction is not only wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies, it’s also wasting our tax dollars and distracting officials from real emergencies.

Watch this infographic for a visualization of San Francisco’s not-so-harmless butt dial problem.

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